Alice Coote - You can't keep a good woman down

Alice Coote tripped and slipped a disc in front of Domingo, but neither that setback nor others have impeded her progress towards Covent Garden and glory, she tells Jessica Duchen

Prince Charming played by a woman? It may sound like the Christmas panto, but this is midsummer at the Royal Opera House and the Cinderella in question is something quite different. Jules Massenet's Cendrillon is a French romantic take on the fairy tale – one that is scarcely ever performed and is now coming to Covent Garden for the very first time. The British mezzo-soprano Alice Coote has fallen under its spell. She is starring in the trouser-role of Le Prince Charmant and, pausing for a cup of tea during rehearsals, she says she can't get the melodies out of her head. "I've never been in a show before where I've woken up each morning singing another character's tunes," she declares.

The Prince is the latestof many so-called "trouser-roles" that this most modest of opera stars has taken on. Coote, 43, has enjoyed a much-praised career for some 20 years and, inevitably for a mezzo, has run the gamut of opera's male characters for female voices, from Handel and Mozart to Strauss's Oktavian in Der Rosenkavalier. But Massenet's Prince is anything but a step backwards. Instead, the radiant score offers her the chance to let rip – appropriate, now, since her voice, she says, is changing, "becoming bigger and higher". It also presents the rare necessity to sing duets with another mezzo-soprano: the American megastar Joyce DiDonato, who is Cinderella. "Our voices seem to blend well and it's great fun singing and acting together," Coote enthuses. "It might be the only chance we ever have to do so."

Her previous experiences at the Royal Opera House include one that was less happy: in 2003, singing in Handel's Orlando, she suffered a haemorrhage on her right vocal cord and had to pull out of half the run. Since then she's found herself constantly charged with having had a "turbulent" career.

"It's not recognised nearly well enough that singers are just like athletes," she points out. "The voice is part of the body. If an athlete falls over in a race, the commentators will usually know if, for example, her preparation time has been affected by an ankle injury. But so many high-profile singers have been punished by people writing that they're finished or should be given up on, just because they've had an injury or an operation. If you're going to sing for 25 years, it's bound to be an up-and-down process." Once an up and a down came simultaneously: in 2005 when she sang Oktavian in Los Angeles, the company's director Plácido Domingo singled her out for praise in a speech after opening night and asked her to step forward. She did so, tripped, and ended up with a slipped disc.

Her path has had plenty of highs and lows. She comes from rural Cheshire and grew up, the youngest of three children, in a house filled with music – her father, an artist, used to play BBC Radio 3 from breakfast time onwards in his studio. Coote was drawn to music early on and learned the oboe, but describes herself as a painfully shy child. "Even at social gatherings with our grandparents I'd want to stay in the background," she says. "But music brought out the core of who I am and got me into a situation where I could stand up and perform in a school concert, which I'd never have done otherwise. There was something inside me that just knew I had this voice."

Soon her teachers knew it too: even in her mid-teens, she says, her voice sounded relatively mature and she was advised that if she took it seriously enough, singing could become her life. At 18 the country girl headed for the capital to study at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but she hated living in London so much that she didn't finish the course and retreated north: "I had a terrible time at college, but I always had this thread of belief that singing to other people is what I should do. Expressing emotion through sound is what comes naturally to me and where I feel most myself."

After taking a succession of jobs in shops and offices, studying singing privately on the side, she pursued further studies at the Royal Northern College of Music and then the National Opera Studio. Further obstacles arrived one after another: first, she had to have her tonsils out, then she was injured in a motorway car crash en route to London to join the NOS. But at the RNCM she found a true mentor in the great German mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender, who gave her the confidence she needed so much.

"She's the real deal," Coote says. "It was incredible to meet such an icon, and to hear her say in front of everyone at the RNCM, when I was still struggling, that I had major talent. She flew me over to her house for more coaching, put me up, cooked me meals, gave me self-belief. There's a thread about her through everything I've done – from meeting her before I even knew I could have a career, to being asked to sing Oktavian in Munich in the production in which she used to sing that role, and putting on the same green velvet shorts."

Until now fans have often seen Coote as the perfect mezzo for Mozart and early music. But now her expanding voice is enabling her to branch out – in recent seasons she's sung much more Strauss, plus Carmen, and Charlotte in Massenet's Werther – and her spell of injury, she says, has borne positive results, giving her an increased understanding of her voice's needs.

"I feel that I've finally learnt how to sing." She laughs, but there's a serious undertone. "I'm itching to sing bel canto opera, which I've hardly ever done: Donizetti, Bellini and Gluck. I'm equipped now to take on bigger challenges. I feel like I haven't even scratched the surface."

Shy she may have been, but nothing will keep that voice from finding its way forward. Meanwhile she heads home from rehearsal to the countryside for some well-earned rest, happy after five months on the road to hear nothing but silence and birdsong.

'Cendrillon', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 5 to 16 July

Arts and Entertainment
Cillian Murphy stars as Tommy Shelby in Peaky Blinders

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

books
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
There are no plans to replace R Kelly at the event

music
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>Laura
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star